I’m writing this in the heart of the West Yorkshire Ghetto known as Hyde Park in Leeds. Yorkshire has a long rich history of cinema but one film over the years has embodied the region more than any other and that film is Kes. The film was directed by Ken Loach and was only his 2nd feature-length after working in the ’60s mostly on BBC teleplays of various kinds most notably Cathy Come Home. Loach is still a vital director well into his 80th year but Kes remains for most including myself his finest work.
Kes was based on the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines which you may have read for your English GCSE where it’s still often used. The first time I saw Kes was actually in a pop-up cinema in Sunderland (when they were still the only major city in the UK without a cinema, that’s changed) and met Barry afterwards who has since passed on. He spilled some beans on Loach’s methods which I don’t necessarily agree with but respect.
David Bradley plays Billy Casper who is a rebellious young man who looks like he is the son of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith. Billy can barely read, commits petty crimes, is bullied at home by his brother Jud and is bullied equally at school. However he soon discovers a kestrel in a nest and pours his heart and soul into training the bird. Things start looking up for Billy but in pure Loachian fashion it all ends in tragedy. The film also has the greatest football scene ever which has went down in legend.
The film was a word of mouth hit in the UK but never reached a larger international audience and was partially redubbed for the US because they “couldn’t understand” the Yorkshire accents of course. It remains easily the most iconic and best of the kitchen sink dramas of the ’60s and it came at the tail end of that movement. Loach as usual uses mostly non-professional actors with Bradley giving one of the most effective performances of a child ever committed to celluloid. It has slightly more visual flair than most of Loach’s films due to the DoP Chris Menges who has since Kes had a long and lengthy career in the UK and US.
Masters of Cinema has finally given the film the release it deserves over here, a nice Criterion edition has been available in the US since 2011 but only a shoddy old DVD in the UK. The new transfer is probably slightly better than the Criterion. The features are all totally different from the Criterion as well. There is around 100 minutes of new interviews spanning from David Bradley to Chris Menges. The panel from the 2006 reunion at the now sadly defunct Bradford film festival is included. Ken Loach also gives a 70 minute on-stage which was filmed in 1992. The dubbed track is included along with a booklet with new writings on the film.